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'Action/Abstraction' makes ripples on its way to Buffalo

Convergence

The landmark exhibition "Action/Abstraction," spearheaded by the Jewish Museum and currently on view at the St. Louis Art Museum (hilariously abbreviated SLAM), has been gaining generally positive attention from a variety of critics, including the New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl and Time's Richard Lacayo. The praise for the exhibition is as much for the top examples of Abstract Expressionism it contains (its headlining pieces are both from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), as for its organizational conceit. The show is meant to be viewed in the context of a great critical debate over how this art should be interpreted, represented by the heavyweight formalist critic Clement Greenberg and the somewhat more radical but no less vehement viewpoint of his nemesis, Harold Rosenberg.

As I've been making my way through the extensive exhibition catalogue, it's struck me that the exhibition's organizing principal, as esoteric and somewhat high-falutin' as it sounds, is an ideal way for the casual considerer of Abstract Expressionism -- the bedrock of the Albright-Knox collection -- to discover the deep meaning and ultimately the pleasure buried underneath Pollock's drips, de Kooning's jagged swaths of penetrating color or Gorky's language of dreamlike symbols. "Getting" the AbEx artists really doesn't require any sort of enormous intellectual jump, but it does require a certain amount of information and context. And from the looks of it, that's exactly what "Action/Abstraction," which opens here in February, seems to provide.

For Lacayo, as for many others I'm sure, a good deal of the show's interest lies in its examination of Greenberg and Rosenberg's hopelessly outdated and retrospectively almost silly debate, which at the time threatened to separate the entire art world into rival factions. Like the Jets and the Sharks of AbEx art, or to get Greek like Lacayo's description of the critics, "the Scylla and Charybdis of postwar American art criticism." The closing few sentences in his latest blog entry on the show are particularly telling in this regard:

They [Greenberg and Rosenberg] both swore they were dedicated to freedom, but in their different ways they were fundamentalists. The artists that Greenberg and Rosenberg loved were right. It was the critics, by their need to organize them into narrow categories and send them marching down the road of art history, who made the mistake.

Food for thought. Look for much more as the exhibition approaches.

--Colin Dabkowski

(Photo of Jackson Pollock's "Convergence" courtesy the Albright-Knox Art Gallery)

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